Switzerland annually ranks as one of the world’s happiest countries.
Last month, I was given a unique opportunity to find out why. This wasn’t the goal of the trip itself but a byproduct of one of the most memorable weeks of my life.
Seven months ago, I received a cryptic letter in the mail saying I was invited to the American-Swiss Foundation’s 2016 Leadership Conference in Basel, Switzerland, as one of 25 U.S. representatives.
My initial thought was that I had received the letter by mistake. As a small business owner of a produce distribution company, Pacific Pro Inc., in Washington, I could only assume the invite was intended for a senator, doctor or academic with the same name.
The feeling that I had received the letter accidentally was supported by the portion of the letter that stated the entire trip was paid for by generous corporate sponsors (full disclosure: food-related companies included Syngenta and Novartis).
The adage “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” rang loudly in my mind.
This time, however, it proved to be false — I was the intended recipient.
The annual conference in Switzerland brings together 50 American and Swiss participants across a wide spectrum of disciplines — politicians, lawyers, authors, public policy experts, members of the media and the business community.
The goal of the conference? Create a mutual understanding among the next generation of leaders in Switzerland and the U.S., an increasingly important aim in these polarizing times we live in both internationally and domestically.
To achieve that nebulous but lofty ambition of “mutual understanding,” we spent the week visiting various Swiss-based multinationals, participating in panel discussions and meeting with dignitaries (like Christa Markwalder, president of the National Council and graduate of the American-Swiss Young Leaders Conference, and the American Ambassador Suzan LeVine).
We talked about global issues important to those of us in the food supply chain — the world food supply, farming and agriculture, food waste and the 2050 challenge to feed the rapidly growing world population.
In my role and experience in the produce industry, I was able to contribute significantly to discussions regarding the complexity of the supply chain, the many variables involved with growing, food safety, production costs, quality demands from consumers and logistics that affect these global food and produce issues.
As I have reflected over the past week regarding the trip, a few of the primary takeaways, beyond the incredible friendships, are:
- We are much more alike than we are different. Regardless of your geographic location, profession or political views, at the end of the day we all desire the best course for the world, our country and our families. We just may have a different view of how we define that course.
- The importance of agriculture to both our countries and our continued effort to feed the growing population. We’re both improving productivity and efficiency while facing a declining work force in agriculture and declining food prices as well as the percentage of income consumers want to budget for fresh fruits and vegetables.
One primary difference is that as a result of Switzerland’s lack of natural resources, the Swiss government significantly subsidizes farmers as compensation for services in the public interest.
Although as a rule American produce growers tend to be fiercely independent, I think many would appreciate slightly more recognition from lawmakers for the crucial role they play in feeding our nation and the world and in minimizing regulations imposed by state and federal governments.
- The Swiss as a culture find value and purpose in seeking consensus and compromise in life, business and government. At the same time they are skeptical of too much power in a single individual, branch of government or political party’s control and set up a decentralized system to purposefully limit singular control.
- A better understanding of Switzerland’s role in European history, their pursued neutrality, and their focus on fostering their primary resource, the talents of their citizenry. With limited natural resources, their primary export is business acumen and investment.
- That we can find common ground on the important things, like who is the best American football team. While visiting the U.S. Ambassador to Switzerland’s home in Bern, we were greeted with a 12th Man flag, and as a Seahawks season ticket holder myself, I found a little piece of home 5,000 miles from it.
It was one of the greatest intensive learning experiences and opportunities of my life, and I look forward to my involvement in the organization for years to come, as well as continuing the friendships that were developed.
Seeing the workings of many of the most successful corporations in the world from the leaders themselves has imparted insight I hope to apply to our own business and the produce industry at large.
This includes a better understanding of both the growers and our customers’ needs, finding and retaining the best talent and evolving as a business to meet new agricultural and consumer demands and challenges.
Randy Hartmann is president of Bellevue, Wash.-based Pacific Pro Inc. and ProducePipeline.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.
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